My much admired friend Tim Keller greatly honored me when he agreed to write the foreword to my book Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different. The book is my attempt to unpack the complex relationship between the church and contemporary culture in an accessible way. Tim's astute and balanced perspective on these issues is clearly and concisely laid out in the foreword. Here it is:
Tullian Tchividjian bravely steps into the one of the hottest debates in contemporary evangelicalism—the divisive issue of how Christians should relate to our broader culture. He does so with grace, providing us with one of the most accessible guides to this issue that we have.
Let me give a brief outline of the current conflict as I see it.
Traditionally, evangelicals' attitude toward culture has been one of relative indifference. It was thought, after all, that this world is only going to burn up in the end. Only human souls last forever. What matters, then, is to convert as many people as possible, and if we do so during the time we have left here on earth, society will be bettered and changed "one heart at a time." Many churches and Christians still understand things this way. But during the last generation, as American social values changed drastically, and as the distinction between Christianity and the rest of the culture has sharpened, many Christians have felt pressured to respond. Three very different approaches have emerged.
First, some perceive the main problem to be the loss of moral absolutes. They insist that Christians have been too passive and must "take the culture back" through politics and grass-roots social activism around issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, fatherhood, traditional gender roles, and abstinence education. They complain that Christians have become too much like the culture, since we have as many divorces and abortions and since many no longer really believe in absolute truth. Young people are therefore encouraged to recover a Christian worldview and then to penetrate the culture and accomplish a conservative version of the "long march through the elite institutions" that the young 1960s radicals achieved over the last thirty years.
In reaction to this approach, other Christians have insisted that the main problem today is the church's irrelevance to the concerns of people and problems of society. While the first group thinks Christians are too assimilated to the world around them, this second group believes Christians are too withdrawn into their own subculture. Believers speak in language that is now undecipherable to the average person. In particular, they are indifferent to the inequality, injustice, and suffering in the world. In this model, the church is called to connect with felt needs of people and especially to work against the inequality and injustice in society. As different as they seem on the surface, older churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback and many emerging churches basically share this way of relating Christ to culture.
The last of the three approaches believes the main problem today is that both the conservative evangelical church and the liberal mainline church have been corrupted by the "Constantinian error" of seeking to reform the world to be like the church. Instead the church has become like the world. It is dominated by the political economy of capitalism and liberal democracy. Trying to change the world seduces Christians into conformity to the world in order to get into positions of influence. Trying to be relevant and meet felt needs only turns the church into another consumer mall. Instead the church needs to recapture its calling to be an alternative society, a counter-culture. It needs to follow Christ "outside the camp," identifying with the poor and marginalized. It needs to have rich, liturgical worship that shapes Christians into a new society. It should stop trying to bring the kingdom of Christ into the world and simply live as signs of the future kingdom. Christians certainly live in the world and have secular vocations, but in them they should aim to act as good citizens and neighbors like anyone else. They shouldn't try to transform the culture.
So, who is right? Is the main problem a lack of evangelism? Or is it the failure of Christians to live out their worldview in the cultural institutions? Or is it our inability to connect with nonbelievers in their own language, to work against injustice, hunger, and poverty? Or is it the thinness and lack of distinctiveness of our own Christian communities?
When one takes a view of these models from thirty thousand feet, it is not too hard to realize why they all have so many adherents. Each one is onto something extremely important. Their biggest weakness, however, is that they tend to define themselves over against each other instead of over against the world. This means that, for all their strengths and insights, none of them seems to be able to see the strengths in the other approaches. This leads to imbalances and overreaching.
What I love about Tullian's book is that he implicitly critiques all of these approaches, not by directly trying to refute them, but by selecting the strengths of each approach, explaining and illustrating each one in ways easy to grasp, and then showing how, at a congregational level, they can be woven together into a coherent whole. Here you will learn how we must contextualize, how we Christians should be as active in Hollywood, Wall Street, Greenwich Village, and Harvard Square as in the halls of Washington, DC. And yet there are ringing calls to form a distinct, "thick" Christian counter-culture as perhaps the ultimate witness to the presence of the future, the coming of the kingdom.
Tullian gives us a great example of how the emphases I've described can be combined in a local church in our own cultural moment. Read it carefully and you will profit greatly.
—Timothy Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, and author of The Reason for God